Raining Tacos in Scrabble Land

CLACKAMAS, OREGON

“Jews don’t eat tacos.”

We were on the way to Oregon for a Labor Day weekend Scrabble tournament and I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse for my wife regarding why I am totally clueless when it comes to taco-eating etiquette. The depths of my ignorance in this particular realm is so deplorable that I can’t even manage to eat a fast food taco out of its wrapper without making an unholy mess all over the place. Shredded lettuce everywhere. Taco meat stains on my pants. Grease running down my chin onto my shirt.

My wife tried to tell me something about holding the taco by the wrapper on one end while taking bites from the other end and pushing the wrapper up as I go. This seems fine in theory, but I always seem to have trouble making allowances for the effects of gravity. And anyway, what am I supposed to do about the avocado shooting out of the top like some sort of perverse green lava while I’m trying to take dainty little nibbles out of the side?

The obvious reason that traditional Jews don’t eat tacos is that tacos have long been an integral part of the cuisine of Latin America, while most American Jews are of eastern European ancestry. I would no more expect tacos on the menu in Poland or Russia than I would expect kreplach, kugel and cholent to show up on the menu in Mexico. In other words, there is a cultural disconnect.

America, of course, is famous the world over for its cultural heterogeneity. While my forebears feared that the ocean crossing to the States would effectively obliterate all traces of our cultural identity in the bubbling American melting pot, the former assumption of assimilation eventually yielded to a celebration of multiculturalism. No one thinks it a bit odd to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or to go out for margaritas and enchiladas on Cinco de Mayo, even if we have lack any Irish or Mexican ancestry. Chinese, Thai and sushi restaurants are everywhere for all to enjoy. And yes, non-observant Jews do eat tacos.

However, I grew up in a kosher household in New York in the 1960s. I never even heard of a taco. There wasn’t a Taco Bell in every neighborhood. Our community had no Mexican restaurants. And who would even think of such a goyishe thing, anyway? Feh!

The result was a bit of culture shock when I transplanted myself to a heavily Mexican-American area of California’s Central Valley in the mid-1990s. Never mind that I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t even understand the minhag ha’makom, the cultural lingua franca. I embarrassed myself well and truly when I sheepishly admitted to not knowing what a tortilla was.

Even if traditional Judaism had not built bulwarks against the multicultural environment so prevalent in the United States, our religious proscriptions could never have tolerated the taco. Meat and cheese together? Hass v’shalom! You should wash your mouth out with soap! Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating meat and dairy products at the same meal, much less in the same tortilla. And who could even find a tortilla not made with lard? Remember, we don’t eat anything that comes from a pig.

Oh, how times have changed. Packaged tortillas bearing kosher certification are now available at your local supermarket. And thanks to the fake meat revolution spearheaded by industry leaders Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and the host of non-dairy cheeses now on grocery store shelves, it’s perfectly easy to prepare a respectable pareve (non-meat and non-dairy) taco that even vegans can enjoy. Inevitably, the fast food industry has begun to get on board this train.

Much has been written about the Beyond Burgers sold by Carls Jr. and the Impossible Burgers on the menu at Burger King. Could the taco be far behind? Not a chance. While Taco Bell seems to be holding out, competitor Del Taco has zoomed forward with its Beyond Meat tacos. The avocado version, which eschews the cheese, even claims to be vegan.

While no Orthodox Jew would be eating fast food of any kind, those of us raised in middle-of-the-road, suburban, Conservative Jewish kosher households now find it possible to join the crowd in indulging in fast food tacos. All of which brings me back to my dilemma: How are you supposed to eat the darned things without making an unholy mess? Put them on a plate and use a knife and fork? I remain clueless.

To make matters worse, I arrived at the Scrabble tournament in Oregon to learn that the entrance fee included lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Guess what was served at the first lunch? Someone was about to make a great big mess in front of his fellow competitors.

The night before the tournament, I had trouble sleeping. Not unusual for me when at out-of-town hotels. In bed, I picked up my phone and began perusing the day’s news. A story that caught my eye described a new tactic employed by the City of West Palm Beach, Florida to discourage homeless persons from sleeping on the lawn of one of the city-owned properties. All night long, the city blares from its speakers an endless music loop consisting of the children’s songs “Baby Shark” (doo doo doo doodoodoodoodoodoo) and “It’s Raining Tacos.” This tactic, known as “the weaponizing of sound,” has been roundly criticized by many.

My curiosity got the better of me. A song about tacos? This I had to hear. I pressed “play.”

Um, bad move.

Take my advice: Don’t do it. If you’re not familiar with this Parry Gripp ditty, you are better off remaining in blissful ignorance.

Okay, don’t listen to me. But don’t blame me when you can’t get this catchy tune out of your head for days. (Shell! Meat! Lettuce! Cheese! Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese!)

And whatever you do, try not to think of this song while you’re making an unholy mess eating tacos with several dozen fellow Scrabble fanatics. If you bob your head and start humming while you’re spewing shredded lettuce everywhere, someone is going to wonder what’s really in that water bottle.

Grab Bar Follies

The Reno strip at night. The Eldorado, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus are all connected by interior walkways. In the background at left is the famous Reno sign (“biggest little city in the world”).

RENO, NEVADA

We recently returned from a quick weekend getaway to Reno. The idea was to relax in front of the video poker machines at Baldini’s, our favorite locals’ casino across the river in Sparks, Nevada (Rock Boulevard at Glendale Avenue). The buffet is long gone, but Baldini’s has a popular 24-hour café known as the Empire Diner (excellent food, large portions, great service, and half the price of the restaurants in the hotels on the Strip). They also have a taphouse with pub grub and a little sandwich place called The Brickyard on the casino floor. We love Baldini’s!

Alas, the Baldinko does not have an attached hotel, so we stayed at the Sands Regency just off the Strip. We have been here many times, mostly due to their promotions that keep things affordable. This time, we paid for Saturday night and got Friday night free. The Sands is an older hotel, badly in need of modernization. Hence, the promotions. The place is huge, with accommodations spanning three high-rise buildings.

The Sands at night, with a view of one of its restaurants, Mel’s Diner. I admit to enjoying the ability to chow down on oatmeal and fried potatoes at three in the morning while listening to the Flamingos and the Chiffons (shoo-bop, shoo-bop).

It had been a year since we last graced the Sands with our presence, and I had completely forgotten what you get for the cheap rooms: Horrible parking, pricey food, Saturday night crowds, and downright stupidity when it comes to reserving an “ADA room.”

Compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires most hotels to make a certain percentage of their rooms accessible to those with physical disabilities. This encompasses a wide variety of accommodations, from having fire alarms with visible strobes for the deaf, to making doorways wide enough for wheelchairs to fit through, to providing roll-in showers. While new hotels are built to ADA specs, older establishments like the Sands limp along on a few barely adequate retrofits.

I have learned from hard experience that about the best you can expect at the Sands in terms of accessible bathing is a tub with a grab bar. Well, if you happen to be in a wheelchair, then good luck to you. You’d better be traveling with someone strong enough to lift you in and out of the bathtub without injuring themselves. As for myself, so far unfettered by a wheelchair, the difference between being able to bathe or not frequently hinges on the height of the tub. I no longer have enough strength in my legs to lift them up high and swing them over the side of a tall tub. Most of us take this maneuver for granted, but it is an insurmountable obstacle for me. The Sands plan seems to be to reach into the tub, hang onto the grab bar for dear life, and haul yourself into the bath on the strength of your arm and back muscles. You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, really?

For me, the bottom line is that if the side of the tub is more than a few inches high, no grab bar is going to help. At the Sands, I struggled mightily to lift myself into that tub by contorting my body any way that I could. The end result was that I pulled a muscle in my back, spent the remainder of the weekend hobbling about hunched over, and stank like a vagrant. You simply can’t clean your body very well with a washcloth, at least not without flooding the bathroom.

Next stop is Oregon for a Scrabble tournament. Why am I surprised that the host hotel has no walk-in/roll-in showers? This weekend, I will be shopping for a basin large enough to stand in while I’m giving myself daily sponge baths. And lots of deodorant.

As for any of my esteemed opponents bowled over by my nasty B.O., kindly keep it to yourselves. Just hold your tongue while you’re holding your nose over there across the board.

ADA or no, traveling will always be a challenge for those of us with disabilities. The best we can do is to keep the dialogue going and let hotel management know in no uncertain terms that our needs are not being met. We will be heard and we will be seen. And come what may, we will travel the world for work and for play. Our days of staying at home and hiding are over.

Runaway

Mono Lake, eastern Sierras. Taken from U.S. 395, north of Lee Vining CA.

I have tried to run away, only to learn that there is no escape. It took some life experience to learn that you will always be outrun by whatever is chasing you, even if the pursuer is none other than your own shadow. (See Proverbs 28:1). It’s true that you can’t run away from yourself.

In my lifetime, I have thrice made the run from sea to shining sea. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family, and I sometimes wonder where I’d be today without their help.

First time: I was living paycheck to paycheck and, had I not suddenly decamped from Connecticut to the Bay Area, would have eventually run out of money, if not from an automotive crisis, then certainly when my employer closed up shop. That is, unless the abusive relationship I was in killed me first.

Second time: It’s true what they say about not being able to go home again. My eight months in California were disastrous, leaving me to choose between moving in with my parents or homelessness. I saw running away as a viable third option, but high-tailing it back to New England got me nowhere fast. I couldn’t land a stable job in Hartford, went broke and moved in with family in Boston. My first day there, my car disappeared from in front of the laundromat where I was washing clothes. Turned out the cops hauled it away because I couldn’t afford to update my registration and insurance. Back to California I go.

Third time: I was fortunate to have parents who took me in, as I had run out of emotional capital with everyone else. I figured it was better than homelessness. After four and a half months of emotional misery, much of it brought on by myself, a stroke of good fortune led me to a stable paycheck that was just enough to secure a rented apartment six months later.

Twenty years have gone by since then. I have visited the east coast twice without incident. While the sight of New England continues to engender incipient longings, I have come to the understanding that California is my home, now and forever. I was one of those hardheaded dumbells who had to learn the hard way that running away gets you nowhere.

That isn’t to minimize the setbacks that I have experienced here in the Golden State. It took me decades to learn the life lesson that resolve, perseverance, and plain old staying the course can get you far.

Come October, I’ll probably still gawk at the online photos of the amazing Crayola leaf show, coming to you live from Vermont and New Hampshire.

And then I’ll log off, step out into the California sunshine, and laugh.

On Traveling with a Disability

The fact that traveling with a disability can be a challenge is nothing new to millions of people around the world. Some hotels will bend over backward to accommodate you, others will give you the stink eye, while still others will be utterly dismissive as if you are a nuisance and not a paying customer.

Where it gets really tricky is when you have a “hidden” disability. Hotels may not recognize that you have a disability unless you come right out and tell them. Even if you don’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable doing so, you never know what type of reaction you will elicit. Some staff will think you’re trying to scam something for free or that you’re unfairly monopolizing the hotel’s resources.

For example, you’re a lot more likely to get what you need if you roll through the front entrance in a wheelchair than if you walk in on your own two feet and explain to the clerk that you have limited capacity for ambulation. Visible disabilities are one thing, but less obvious conditions may have to be explained. If your disability is not immediately apparent, there is a reasonable chance that you will be barely tolerated as some type of faking miscreant.

Granted, even the wheelchair-bound will be mistreated in some places. There will always be those who believe that we, the disabled, should just stay home and avoid appearing in public lest we make someone uncomfortable. After a while, you come up with techniques of suppressing your ire and politely expressing that you’re not looking for special treatment and certainly don’t want their misplaced sympathy. Just comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, would ya?

When traveling with a disability, there is no substitute for advance planning. As a frequent business traveler, I enjoy the distinct advantage of the services of secretaries and other support staff at my place of employment who will patiently make my travel arrangements. When necessary, they will yell, threaten, cite the ADA and demand to speak to management. I am truly blessed to be insulated from this crap. Our support people are worth their weight in gold, and then some.

No amount of planning, however, will guarantee that what you reserved will actually be available when you reach your destination. You get out of the car and say a little prayer as you approach the lobby, hoping that everything will go smoothly and all you’ll have to think about is how to best explain that one tricky concept during your presentation tomorrow.

Some hotel chains are more reliable than others when it comes to accommodating disabilities, and after a while, you know which ones can be counted on and which ones cannot. Bill Marriott, wherever you are, take a bow for your hotels’ reliability and for your unfazed staff. Ditto for the Westin and Holiday Inn Express. Other places, not always so much. Names withheld to protect the guilty.

Most of us with disabilities have a pet peeve or two related to our particular limitations. In my case, it’s reserving an “accessible room” or “ADA room,” only to arrive and find a bathroom with a wide doorway that accommodates wheelchairs — and a shower inside a bathtub that is so far off the ground that there is no chance whatever of me being able to lift my legs high enough to get in. So what do I do now? Find another hotel at the last minute, or endure three days of sponge baths? I hope I brought along plenty of deodorant and Ammens powder. By the time I get to the third day, my poor trainees are going to be holding their noses and gagging. Is it too late to teach this class via Skype?

“But this is our only available accessible room,” the desk clerk will demur when you ask to be moved. “That’s what you reserved, right? Did you see that the shower has a grab bar?” You want to cuss a blue streak at everyone and everything, including the desk clerk standing before you, the secretary who made your reservation, and the bad luck that left you with a disability in the first place, even though none of them had anything remotely to do with your current predicament. Instead, you smile sweetly and squeak out the words “okay, I guess I’ll make it work.” You count your blessings, thanking the Lord that you’re not blind or a paraplegic. Take deep breaths. Perspective, dude.

Later, you may learn that the hotel has another room with a roll-in shower, but the staff failed to mention that fact when the room was being reserved because someone else had already booked it. And, sooner or later, you will reserve a room with a roll-in shower only to find that the hotel gave it away to someone else who arrived 15 minutes before you did.

You learn to grin and bear it. After all, horror stories are more than balanced out by the trips that achieve textbook perfection. And so today I raise my glass in a toast to those hotels that are scrupulously honest about what’s really available and what isn’t, that honor their commitments, and who treat those of us with disabilities of any type as valued customers and fellow human beings. You engender the undying loyalty of road warriors the world over.

A Business Travel Primer

I travel around California a great deal for my job and, along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about staying in hotels. I offer them up here for your edification and entertainment.

1. If you’ve seen one chain motel, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t expect too much of a discount hotel room. It’s a place to lay your head and take a shower. Period.

2. If you get an upgrade to, say, a Hilton, Westin or Marriott, be prepared to pay $20 to $30 (or more) for the privilege of parking your rental car. Um, yes, that’s for one night! If you don’t like it, Motel 6 is thataway.

3. Just because you’re driving a rental car doesn’t excuse you from knowing the license plate number and writing it on the registration form. Yeah, I’m talking to you! Instead of being a lazy butt, walk back out to the parking lot and write down your license plate number. What’s that you say? You can’t be bothered? If you write “black Honda” on the registration form and leave it at that, be prepared to be woken up out of a deep sleep at 2:30 in the morning by your ringing bedside phone, the desk clerk informing you that someone with a black Honda left his or her lights on. That’s right, there are six guests registered as driving black Hondas (no plate number listed), so the desk clerk had to wake up all of them! Now pull on some pants, slip on your shoes and head for the elevator and out to the parking lot to see if you’re today’s grand prize winner. Oh, it’s pouring down rain? Bonus!

4. Parallel parking skills are helpful. No, I’m not talking about the hotel parking lot. For returning the luggage cart! Don’t be the genius who leaves that huge thing in the middle of the lobby for someone who’s not paying attention to trip over.

5. When it comes to breakfast options, learn to translate hotel-speak into English. Complimentary means breakfast is included in the price of the room, so you don’t have to mess with your laughable so-called expense account and end up paying for half the meal out of your own pocket. Breakfast buffet is the gold standard, as in there is likely to be at least one offering that is actually edible. Continental breakfast does not mean chocolate brioche and croque monsieur. It means you’re welcome to a stale donut to go with that stale coffee. Light breakfast means run the other way screaming (unless you’d like a rotten banana with your dry cereal). Grab ‘n Go means keep walking straight past the front desk, out the door and drive to Starbucks. Unless you’re six years old or like surprises, that is. Okay, don’t listen to me. When you open the bag on your break, enjoy an apple that is past its prime, a mini honey-oat bar and a bottle of water. Happy?

6. Whenever possible, snag a room with a mini-fridge and a microwave. Then you can make a stop at the local supermarket and eat what you actually enjoy. (See above.)

7. “Restaurant on premises” means you get the privilege of paying for your own breakfast. If you happen to be in San Francisco or Los Angeles, breakfast can easily run you $30 plus tip. If you’re stuck in LA for a week, well, you do the math.

8. Just because the on-premises restaurant is advertised as opening at 7 am does not necessarily mean that they will actually be prepared to serve you food at that hour. If you have an early meeting, make other arrangements.

9. If you’re not sure if you should eat it, don’t. Just don’t. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already paid for it or that the cost is included. If it smells a little off, looks weird or tastes funny, throw it in the trash. Get something else, or go hungry if you’re in a rush. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when you feel an urgent rumble in your bowels just when you’re hitting your stride on the PowerPoint about half an hour into your presentation. ‘Nuff said.

10. If you conscientiously attempt to save your employer money by staying in the cheapest motel available, be prepared to be richly rewarded by water stains on the ceiling, blood stains on the sheets, broken crack vials in the parking lot, and all-night cussin’ and carryin’ on by the 40-in-a-paper-bag crowd just outside your door. Throw in the occasional cockroach for good measure.

11. Some hotels have nothing but liquid soap available in the shower and at the sink. If you prefer bar soap, have your own supply ready as backup.

12. When staying at a hotel with interior corridors, know the location of the stairs and the emergency exits. I know, no one bothers with that stuff just for a night or two. Do this long enough, however, and you’ll wish you had paid attention when you get to experience a deafening fire alarm go off in the middle of the night. Just sayin’.

13. Regardless of your beliefs regarding immigration and/or speaking English, learn at least a few basic phrases in Spanish. Otherwise, do not complain when you are urgently in need of toilet paper and are unable to communicate this to the woman who cleans the rooms.

14. Generously tip the bell hop and the valet. It won’t kill you to leave a couple of bucks for the chambermaid either. Remember, these folks support their families by doing physically demanding work and being ill-treated by guests for their trouble. Oh, and good karma is priceless.

15. Be polite, like your mama taught you. Say “please” and “thank you” to the hotel staff, even if you’re having a bad day. Smile and say “good morning” or “good evening,” even if you don’t feel like it. Hotel employees are not robots and they are not your slaves to be abused at will. They’re not asking you to be their best friend; just treat them like human beings. Kind of like how you would like to be treated, you know?

Pit Toilet

ON THE SEAT OF A PIT TOILET AT A TINY REST AREA OFF U.S. 395 IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

My wife was driving. We were on the way home from yet another work-related trip to a remote corner of California.

“Ha-ha, laughs and giggles,” I told my wife.  “This is funny but I really, really need to stop and use the rest room as soon as we see one. Funny, I know, because there’s no place to stop.”

We were in the middle of nowhere, amidst hayfields on both sides of Highway 395, 65 miles south of Alturas CA, 116 miles north of Reno NV.  Luckily for me, a sign appeared on the horizon, “Rest Area 1 Mile.”

Sure enough, we came upon said rest area and I toddled off to the side of the building marked “Men’s.”  Happily, no one was occupying the premises.

To my chagrin, as I bolted the latch, I found myself in the dark.  I felt around for a light switch and found none.  By the bit of sunlight coming in through three small grates, I stared deep into the filthy bowels of what I vaguely recognized as a pit toilet.  Perhaps it was the lack of a flush handle that gave it away.  Or perhaps it was a flashback to a camping trip with my family when I was eleven years old.  Six of us crowded into a tent, and my father would wake up to ferry us to the latrine in the middle of the night by flashlight.  The venue was a campground near the tiny town of Gilboa in upstate New York.  I had no idea that the place was named after the location of a Biblical battle, but I did develop an impressive case of butt rash.

I hope I avoid that ignominous fate in my current situation.  In my urgency, however, I was left with no choice but to grit my teeth and sit down.  I count my blessings, for there is not one, but three rolls of toilet paper at my disposal here.

I brought some trash from the car to dispose, but no trash basket is in evidence.  Worse, however, is the fact that there is no sink.  So, after squatting over this putrefying hole, I won’t even be able to wash my hands.

Oh, gee. Some poor soul is rattling the door handle, desperate to get in.  I hear a slight moan, and then what can only be described as a retch.  Listening to the wretch retch, I can only feel sorry for this poor person.  “Look,” I privately reason with him, “you can puke your guts out on the lawn of this rest area, making a horrible mess in the process, and everyone will take pity on you.  I, on the other hand, do not have the option to drop trou, grunt loudly, and violently defecate in the sunshine without being promptly arrested for indecent exposure and summarily hauled off to jail in the CHP paddy wagon.  And what would I tell my boss when I call out from work tomorrow?  You, my friend, can call in sick.  I, on the other hand, will have some splainin’ to do.”

Back at the car, my wife gripes about finding a similarly disgusting situation in the women’s room.   “Do we have any hand wipes?” She asks.  “Ah, we have one left.  There should at least be a place where you can wash your hands!”

We share the single remaining pre-moistened towelette as we fly down the road.  We need to find someplace to stop for lunch.

But first, we need to wash our hands.  With lots of hot water and soap.

Ick.

 

Stinkbusters

Ghostbusters

In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars).  In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets).  These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels.  For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder.  Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.”  The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California.  The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop.  Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time.  I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time.  And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.

As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there.  Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at  The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now).  I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes.  I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre.  (Let’s be honest:  When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy).  She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space.  Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.

As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February.  We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor.  For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.

Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof.  That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me.  But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream.  I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to?  I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen.  It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.

The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”  As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home.  It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora.  The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants.  And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car.  My mother and father were horrified.  But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me.  It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.

These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for.  Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares.  One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street.  Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate.  You can do everything right and still end up with nothing.  The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed.  “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends.  We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.

I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there).  She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag.  Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12.  In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.

A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput.  This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day.  This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters.  We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family.  Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy.  Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency.  We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this.  Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.

The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible.  After that:  Ice, ice, baby.  Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club.  Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.

By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat.  By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend.  Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up.  Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation.  After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost.  I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!).  Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say.  I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.

My wife texted me at work.  Want to go to a hotel and shower?  Yes! Oh, yes, please.  As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid.  Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower.  Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit.  When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled.  I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything.  “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.

49er

Well, now even I could smell myself.  This was getting bad.  My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore.  I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative.  We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12.  But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers.  That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town.  Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time.  As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list.  And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels.  The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?

We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available.  By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care.  I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner.  It happened to be Ghostbusters.  Goodness, have we gone retro or what?  That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).

Wow, what a blast from the past.  I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire.  I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa.  She did, and I never heard from her again.

At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine.  Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie.  I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie.  “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

Shower2

Then a shower became available.  My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys.  One key, just $12.  Good news.  We could each take a shower, one after the other.

The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench.  Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other.  The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating.  I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on.  But, by gosh, I felt clean!  And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.

Shower1

Two days later:  Still no hot water at home.  I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again.  Back to the truck stop we went.  Another twelve dollars and another shower for two.  I waved to the pinball machine on the way out.  A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.

Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay.  If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.

Who ya gonna call?

 

For further reading:

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).

Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).

Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’:  On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).

Jessica Bruder’s website:  https://www.jessicabruder.com/

Bob Wells’ blog:  http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/